Much has been written about the polymath nature of David Driskell: artist, curator, instructor, collector, scholar, and advocate for black art and artists.
His seminal 1978 exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art” irrevocably changed the accepted canon of American art, as Thelma Golden writes in an essay in one of Driskell’s excellent and comprehensive posthumous retrospective catalogs, “Icons of Nature and History,” now at the Portland Museum of Art (until September 12). In Driskell’s own words, he challenged the art establishment by saying, “No, you haven’t seen it all; you don’t know everything. And here is a part of it that you should see.
Driskell was a renaissance man: exceptional gardener, occasional micrologist, cook, aesthete, storyteller. But here I want to focus on his art. An essential part of taking a critical look at an artist’s work is to understand how they are influenced by their ancestors: Who did the artist admire and/or imitate? What artistic currents and genres was the artist attracted to? In Driskell’s case, it might actually be easier to distinguish the influences not gift. The density of artistic, spiritual and cultural references in this exhibition is breathtaking. (Another Driskell exhibit, “Icon,” opens Aug. 5 — and runs through Aug. 28 — at Greenhut Galleries.)
During this delightful show – organized by the PMA and the High Museum of Atlanta, and curated by Driskell scholar Julie L. McGee – we come across hints of an incredible array of arts and traditions. A partial list includes ancient African masks and ceremonial objects, West African Adinkra symbolism, Byzantine icons and mosaics, Southern black band patchwork and Afro-Brazilian lacework, figuration, abstraction, analytical cubism , painting, printmaking, drawing, collage, wall art. We also come into contact with a plethora of spiritual paths and beliefs, including Christian, Pantheistic, Yoruba and Candomblé.
Driskell’s diverse body of work makes it clear that he considered the entire continuum of art history. He absorbed the work of, among others (and in no particular order), his teachers Jack Levine and James A. Porter, Georges Rouault, Modigliani, Picasso and Braque, Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam, Adolph Gottlieb and Jackson Pollock. For an art critic, this can sometimes be a red flag, raising concerns about drift, or an artistic voice that is incomplete or lacking in originality.
No such concern is warranted here. The most obvious constancy, no matter what kind of art Driskell was doing, is always the promiscuity of his mind. He was a brilliant alchemist, blending elements from everywhere, layering and layering them in variously conflicting, meditative, mournful, explosive, celebratory, and completely unique ways.
In the catalog, McGee interviews Driskell’s friend and colleague William T. Williams, who observes, “David is unique because his understanding of art history and iconography became embedded in his art. . You can find parallels there with historical works and ideas – they can be contemporary, from the 12th century, or from another era, and beyond American culture… There is a very skilled hand and spirit at the job. What we see in his work are immediate intuitive decisions, not conclusions in five days. They are spontaneous orchestrations of linear tonalities and structures. Further, Williams adds: “With David, there is a kind of singular welcome and a synthesis of many styles and attitudes about what painting can be.”
The first gallery welcomes us with two self-portraits, immediately establishing the restlessness of Driskell’s mind. His face from 1953 bears the thick black outlines of Rouault and the slender, elongated features of Modigliani. The paint is thick and coarsely textured, with saturation right out of the tube, and its handling of color is already masterful. Just three years later, the outlines are thinner, more refined, the heavy impasto is confined to his red shirt, and the style is closer to Porter’s.
Driskell also inserted his preteen self into 1953’s ‘City Quartet’ and ‘Boy with Birds’. The former reveals Levine’s influence in composition and paint application (more daubs than strokes) . The latter is a first illustration of Driskell’s fluidity in inoculating genres and artistic traditions. It looks like stained glass, another craft he took up much later, illuminating his religious upbringing (his father was a Baptist pastor). But it also has the urban energy of Stuart Davis’ streetscapes and the compressed space of Bearden’s collages.
On the opposite wall is “Behold Thy Son” from 1956, one of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition. It portrays Emmett Till, the tragic martyr of Southern racism who had been lynched the previous year. The image is overtly Christlike, the skeletal body rendered – in the word of the wall tag – in an almost “forensic” manner that also recalls emaciated Byzantine icons. Till’s body is battered and bruised; his face distorted by the blows. It’s heartbreaking and unforgiving, with the character looking shamelessly at the viewer as if to say, “Look what the sin of racism has done.”
This becomes a common gaze that we find throughout the exhibition. Driskell’s characters never turn away, whether it’s Eve with her apple, Driskell’s self-portraits, or the African mask and boy in 1971’s “Ghetto Wall #1.” Dignity, this gaze affirms, is a birthright, no matter how unfair. the world perpetrates on African Americans.
Driskell first encountered Maine through the Skowhegan school and fell so much in love that he and his wife Thelma bought a house in Falmouth where they spent the summers. The state tree has become a prolific topic for Driskell, and there are several examples here. They range from the more figurative (the PMA’s own “Pine and Moon” from 1971) to the abstract cubist (“Young Pines Growing” from 1959).
No matter how they are painted, however, what is most evident is that they are not mere documentations of nature; they deal with the sacred being of trees as manifestations of the spirit. In “Study for Behold Thy Son” – where the Christ figure of Driskell is crucified on a real living tree – the spiritual connection is made explicit. In doing so, the wall tag reads, “Driskell locates nature as a site of salvation, redemption, and emancipation.” But it also makes that connection in other ways. In “Blue of the Night”, a numinous work of cobalt and turquoise, the small squares that cover the surface resemble tesserae of Byzantine mosaics.
Driskell also delved deep into African belief systems. The second and third galleries present numerous works that pay homage to his African cultural and religious heritage: “Our Ancestors, Festival” from 1973, “Shango” from 1972 and “Self-Portrait as Nkisi Nkondi Figure” (2010). The masks would become a recurring motif for the rest of his life. Equally important to Driskell’s work is his childhood in North Carolina. Several of these pieces use old torn artwork that he applied to the surface, which evokes his mother’s quilts.
Driskell also recorded his state of mind during the civil rights movement in his art. “Masking Myself” (1972) is a beautifully intricate drawing that accurately portrays the need not to fully reveal himself as a black man in America. It’s impossible to imagine that the book incorporated into the mixed media “Black Ghetto” (1968-70) doesn’t very intentionally open to a chapter titled “Purchasing Agent” where a subtitle is gleaned that includes the words ” Not Essential”. Conversely, “Ghetto Wall #2” (1970) is more optimistic. The stars and stripes of the American flag are deconstructed and exploded onto the brightly colored canvas, implying the collapse of myths and the status quo. At the top are the words “You I Me Love”.
There is so, so much more. It’s a show you can return to often to experience new layers of the soul of this great artist. That’s what makes Driskell so original. Whatever genres or references his astounding mind and open heart effortlessly synthesize at all times, the personality of his work makes him feel intimately connected and utterly one of a kind.
McGee begins his introductory essay by quoting Driskell’s own essay for “Two Centuries”: “The art of the black man in America, like his music, cannot be separated from his life. His art evolved from his lifestyle and his will to survive. Through immeasurable talent, intelligence and grace, Driskell found a deeply spiritual and humanistic way to express his experience in the world.
Jorge S. Arango has been writing about art, design and architecture for over 35 years. He lives in Portland. He can be reached at: [email protected]o.com